The gentle plucking of an acoustic guitar and rolling percussion fill the tent. Most turn a deaf ear to the customary sounds of house music as a concert commences. The lights were low and the stage empty, instruments waiting to be played, microphones eager to be sung into. A baby-voiced vocal adds character to the instrumentation, a singer with a distinctive bite. It’s a forty-one year old classic recording, a composition we’ve all dug into time and again. When the two-and-a-half minute ballad draws to a close, the audience erupts. The band files in and begins.
More light procession fills the tent. The sounds are different this time, subtly so, modernized with handclaps. The singer, with her sandy blonde hair back in a ponytail adorning dark jeans and a white Keith Richards tank under a white vest is handed a guitar. She makes her way to the microphone for a seemingly endless parade of “ohohohohohs” before launching into, “a friend gave me your number…”
The delicate connection between the two songs is missed, if you weren’t aware Jennifer Nettles and Butch Walker wrote “That Girl” as an answer song to Dolly Parton’s “Jolene,” which filled the air before the band took the stage. Little connections like that were the benchmark of the evening, as Nettles gifted the crowed a lengthy set that had the audience in the palm of her hand.
I’ve been fortunate enough to have seen Jennifer perform three times as part of Sugarland and she remains one of the greatest artists I’ve ever seen take a stage. Her ability to capture an audience has always been electrifying, but she was on fire at the South Shore Music Circus, a partly biased observation aided by my front-row set, a position allowing me to capture every nuance of her movement on the circular stage.
Nettles ran through the entirety of her That Girl album, weaving each track through the set like a river snaking towards an ocean. Keeping an audience engaged with songs that didn’t receive support from radio is an undertaking, but she did it by giving them context, allowing us to hear what she was hoping to achieve with each track.
This context allowed me to finally appreciate the album, which by itself can come off a bit cold. She explained the connection to 70s radio by first gifting us with a spirited take on Ambrosia’s “Biggest Part of Me” and one of Barry Manilow’s ballads before launching into “This One’s For You.”
The rest mostly got short explanations (i.e. “here’s one about…”) and all were excellent and true to form. The highlight was easily “This Angel,” a perfect excuse for Nettles to use the theatre atmosphere to allow her vocal to soar but also reduce to near whisper, silencing the audience. She paired the song about her son with “All I Wanna Do,” Sugarland’s #1 from six years ago, claiming the upbeat ode to spending time with your lover as the prequel.
Throughout the night Nettles ran through a majority of Sugarland’s hits, performing at least one song from each of their albums except, but not all that surprising, The Incredible Machine. “Baby Girl” was as infectious as always and “Stay” did its job of bringing down the house. She brought local girl Kristen Merlin, who finished fourth on The Voice this past spring, on stage for a great duet of “Something More,” which they mashed up with a snippet of Iggy Azalea’s “Fancy.”
I’ve always adored her foray into covering rock songs, and at the August 8 show, she didn’t disappoint. She launched into the song with no warning, and I wailed when I figured out she was doing “Demons” by Imagine Dragons. The track is perfect for her voice and aesthetic, a meaty ballad right up her alley. She closed by encoring with “Thank You,” a perfect slice of gratitude towards the audience, and “Like A Rock.”
I’ve always found it near impossible to accurately convey my admiration for Nettles as a performer – her love of music and being on stage are so intrinsic, it’s palpable. The little things made the night – how she posed at the piano so I could take a picture of her, how she sang directly to a friend who was sitting next to me. Jennifer makes eye contact with the crowd and makes you feel like you’re a part of the show. I’m never happier than when I leave a night in her presence.
Of course, I love her even more for bringing along Brandy Clark as her opener. Clark’s set was short, but she made a nice impression. Instead of merely running through tracks from 12 Stories, Clark focused on a couple of newly written tunes and the requisite songs she’s written for other performers. “Mama’s Broken Heart” is a sweeter number in her hands, and she told the story of how “Better Dig Two” was written as a love song, not a murder ballad. She closed with “Stripes,” but my favorite moment of her set was “Hold My Hand,” a standout 12 Stories cut that showcased her voice and while I don’t love “Get High,” it worked well at the show. Clark’s only misstep was joining Nettles on “His Hands” during Nettles’ set as her microphone wasn’t working right and you couldn’t hear her too well.
Although I’m struggling to find the right words, this was easily (along with the Kathy Mattea show from 2013), the best concert of my life; a moment in time I hope never to forget. Nettles changes your life with her transcendent being and positivity. Everything, even something as kooky as giving away a guitar via Twitter during the show, just works. Nettles may’ve lost herself during The Incredible Machine era, but she’s firmly back on track now and enjoying every minute of the ride.